Stories change the world and social care needs a better story

By Beverley Tarka and Anna Severwright | 01 December 2023

Adult social care leaders came together this week in Bournemouth for the National Children and Adult Services Conference (NCASC). Conferences can be accused of being a talking-shop. But what people say about social care and therefore think about social care matters. When you ask the public about social care they talk about the problems it faces and the money needed to address them. It is about ‘fixing a broken system’ for ‘the vulnerable’, it’s not about building a better future for them and their families.

That’s not surprising. It’s the only story they hear. We must all take some responsibility for that. It is understandable and necessary that we emphasise the huge pressures social care faces and the terrible impact that has on those of us who have reason to draw on care or support to live our lives. But without an equally powerful account of the value social care at its best can bring to all of our lives, this has contributed to a ‘doom loop’ from which we are struggling to escape. 

We need to tell a different story. Social care is, despite its many challenges, a fundamental part of the social and economic fabric of our communities that could play a far greater role in improving all our lives, if backed up by imagination and the right level of resources.

We need to paint the picture of that possibility if we’re going to change what people think about social care and make it a political priority in the minds of the wider public. Once people understand that better care and support is about supporting them and their family to live well, they’ll demand action. And that’s critical to turning social care into a vote winner for all political parties because the issues matter to a lot of people.

That’s why we convened a meeting of social care leaders at this year’s NCASC to discuss how collectively we can change the story of social care, and in doing so transform its future.

We agreed there’s no quick fix. This will take concerted, sustained and disciplined action involving a new movement of different organisations, leaders and people who draw on care and support. But we agreed it was work we and many others must focus on.

Consensus has emerged, not only about the necessity to act, but also around an alternative story, developed by the movement Social Care Future. They invested in extensive research to co-produce a new story. They found that, when offered a different story about the potential of social care, the public’s understanding positively shifts, while support for investment and optimism about the future grows. The movement is now delivering a new strategy, with storytelling at its heart, including an animated short, created with filmmaker Yoav Segal, narrated by TV star and disability activist Liz Carr. 

In parallel the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) has concluded the only way to deliver the transformation set out in their roadmap for reform Time to act, is changing the way the public thinks about social care. They’re backing that up with energy and resources to start telling that story next year and to work with partners to build a more coherent movement to change public attitudes.

Meanwhile, the Future Social Care Coalition, is seeking to leverage the economic case for investment in social care, recently publishing a report ‘Carenomics’.

Lasting impact on public attitudes will rely on many different players acting in concert, over time, with the goal of deep narrative change.  This won’t be a single message or campaign, instead the multiple communications of different organisations all support and help amplify a core framing. We can learn lessons from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation work on tackling poverty and talking about social security, by Nationwide Foundation on homes and homelessness and by the Health Foundation on the social determinants of health.  And it requires investment in the communications infrastructure and in the development and targeted dissemination of creative, engaging content through which to reach public audiences. 

Our meeting in Bournemouth was the start of concerted action to build a better story for social care. We want everyone who wants to transform social care to take part. If you’re reading this and that’s you, drop us a line. Get involved.

Beverley Tarka is president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and Anna Severwright, is co-convenor of Social Care Future.

This article also had contributions from Cllr David Fothergill, Chair of the LGA Community and Wellbeing Board and Kathryn Smith, Chief Executive of Social Care Institute for Excellence, who along with Social Care Future and ADASS, jointly convened the meeting to discuss building public support to transform social care at NCASC 2023 this week.

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